NASA chooses 3 companies to help astronauts go around the Moon

NASA will rent some cool wheels to go around the moon.

Space agency officials announced Wednesday that they have hired three companies to come up with preliminary designs of vehicles that will take NASA astronauts to the moon's south polar region in the next few years. After the astronauts return to Earth, these vehicles would be able to navigate autonomously as robotic explorers, similar to NASA's Mars rovers.

The autonomous driving capability would also allow the vehicle to take on the astronaut's next mission in a different location.

“Where it goes, there are no roads,” Jacob Bleacher, NASA's chief exploration scientist, said at a news conference Wednesday. “Its mobility will radically change our view of the Moon.”

This is Houston-based Intuitive Machines, which successfully landed a robotic spacecraft on the Moon in February; Golden Lunar Outpost, Colorado; and Venturi Astrolab in Hawthorne, California. Only one of the three will actually build a vehicle for NASA and send it to the moon.

NASA had asked for proposals for what it called the lunar ground vehicle, or LTV, which could travel at speeds up to 15.3 miles per hour, travel a dozen miles on a single charge and allow astronauts to drive for eight hours .

The agency will work with the three companies for a year to further develop their projects. Then NASA will choose one for the demonstration phase.

The LTV will not be ready in time for the astronauts on Artemis III, the first landing of NASA's Moon return program, currently scheduled for 2026.

The plan is for LTV to be on the lunar surface ahead of Artemis V, the third astronaut landing expected in 2030, said Lara Kearney, program manager for extravehicular activity and surface human mobility at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

“If they can get there first, we'll get him first,” Ms. Kearney said.

The LTV contract will be worth up to $4.6 billion over the next 15 years: five years of development and then a decade of operations on the Moon, most of which will go to the winner of this competition. But Ms. Kearney said the contracts allow NASA to later fund the development of additional rovers or allow other companies to compete in the future.

The contract follows NASA's recent strategy of purchasing services rather than hardware.

In the past, NASA paid aerospace companies to build vehicles that it then owned and operated. This included the Saturn V rocket, space shuttles and lunar vehicles – popularly known as moon buggies – that astronauts drove to the Moon during the last three Apollo missions in 1971 and 1972.

The new approach proved effective and less expensive for transporting cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA now pays companies, notably Elon Musk's SpaceX, flat fees for such services, more like airline tickets or FedEx shipping.

For the company chosen to build the LTV, the vehicle will remain its property and will be able to rent it to other customers when it is not needed by NASA.

“It is commercially available for us as a commercial company to sell capacity on that rover,” said Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, “and to do so for international partners and for other commercial companies and space agencies around the world.”

The competition has created alliances between small startups and larger, more established aerospace companies, as well as automotive companies. The Intuitive Machines team includes Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Michelin, the tire maker. Lunar Outpost added to its team Lockheed Martin, Goodyear and General Motors, who had helped design the Apollo moon buggies.

Astrolab is working with Houston's Axiom Space, which has sent private astronauts to the space station and is building a commercial module for the International Space Station. Astrolab announced last year that it had signed a deal to send one of its rovers to the moon on a SpaceX Starship rocket as early as 2026. That mission is independent of whether it is selected by NASA, a company spokesperson said.

Although Lunar Outpost is competing with Intuitive Machines on this contract, it plans to work with the company separately, sending smaller robotic rovers to the moon on the company's lunar landers.

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